Are transgender Christians welcome at church?

April 27th, 2015

This past Friday night, a self-described conservative Republican revealed what may be the church’s next and most challenging frontier. Bruce Jenner, celebrated Olympian and reality TV star, announced to the world that he is, at heart, a woman. (And in keeping with the choice Jenner expressed during his interview, I will refer to him using the pronoun “he.”) 

"I've always been confused with my gender identity," Jenner told ABC’s Diane Sawyer. "Are you a woman?" she asked. "Yes, for all intents and purposes, I am a woman ... That female side is part of me ... And that's very hard for Bruce Jenner to say. Because why? I don't want to disappoint people."

Throughout the two-hour special, images of the gold medalist from the 1976 Olympics were juxtaposed with Jenner’s current softer, decidedly more feminine appearance. It looked like two different people — and based on what Jenner said, it was. 

"Let's give him the soul of a female," he imagined God saying at the moment of his birth. “Maybe this is my cause in life," he went on to say. "This is why God put me on this earth; to deal with this issue.”

Rough estimates are that approximately 700,000 people in the U.S. are transgender, meaning that they no longer identify with their birth gender and may be anatomically and biologically transitioning away from it. We can now count Bruce Jenner among this group, which also includes well known people such as Chaz Bono, whose famous parents are Cher and the late Sonny Bono, and Laverne Cox, star of Netflix’s hit series "Orange Is The New Black."

Jenner has made a complicated conversation even more so because he refused to make it easy for conservative church folks. Like it or not, Jenner said he is a conservative and a Christian, and he appears to believe that neither conflicts with his being transgender.

The fact that many in the church don’t and won’t agree is beside the point. Perhaps unintentionally, Jenner has issued a challenge to people of faith across the nation: I may not fit your image of a believer, but I am one. So what are you going to do with me? 

So what should the church do with transgenders such as Bruce Jenner? Should they be barred from attendance? Or should they be allowed to attend but not allowed to join? Should they be allowed to join, but not hold positions of leadership? Or should transgenders be as welcome at church as any other member, without restrictions or conditions? 

Some churches have already answered these questions. While the Metropolitan Community Church appears to be the only denomination in the U.S. that is committed to being welcoming, various church networks within many of the major denominations identify as welcoming and affirming to transgenders as well as lesbians and gays. 

Jenner was known to attend a non-denominational church in southern California. If he still does, I wonder if he will still be welcomed there now that he has confirmed his transition? 

I believe he should be. For most of my life, this has been a very conditional proposition: You are welcome to join us as long as you believe and live as we do. What I now wonder is how we expect people to do that if we don’t welcome them unconditionally with open arms. I’m not talking about people who represent a physical danger to a church member, but those like Jenner whose identity or lifestyle doesn’t mesh with traditional Christian practices.

Agree or not, Bruce Jenner knows who he is. As Christians, do we know who we are as it relates to Jenner and other Christian transgenders? And, is who we are who we should be? 

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